Return to Ossining five months after the hostage crisis

The truce is uneasy in Cellblock B. Prison officials, corrections officers, and inmates at New York's 150 -year-old Ossining Correctional Facility (formerly called Sing-Sing) readily admit that five months after 17 correction officers were held hostage for 53 hours by inmates, all of the ingredients for another riot are still in place.

And though any one of these harsh facts could be written about a score of prisons in other states, they come to a head here.

* At 115 percent of capacity, Ossining is more crowded now than on the day of the riot.

* Staff turnover, a key reason cited in a New York State Commission of Correction investigation conducted to determine the cause of the riot, is even greater today.

* Sixteen hundred inmates out of the facility's 2,150 are waiting for transfer to other prisons. Six hundred of them are in the ''maximum A'' category: violent, felony offenders.

This does not mean that lessons were not learned from the prison rebellion. Every possible effort is being made to increase the rate at which inmates are transferred to other prisons, and improvements have been made, especially in medium-security placements.

Recreation and visiting privileges have been expanded. Medical care is now more promptly provided. Packages and mail are delivered to transit inmates on the same schedule as regular prisoners. Greater access to telephones will soon be permitted.

The delays in completion of a $31 million renovation - classrooms, visiting areas, cafeteria, and recreation rooms - are over.

''We know conditions are not rosy there,'' says Department of Correctional Services Commissioner Thomas A. Coughlin III, ''but when you can't change the front-end loading or the back-end unloading (of prisoners) due to mandatory sentencing, space becomes the issue. And (more) space tends to be insoluble today - it's long-range and political, not correctional.''

Permanent maximum-security cells are ''the most difficult to lay your hands on,'' says Ossining Deputy Warden John McGinnis. ''The 600 'max A's' are the hardest to place. Their delays are too often beyond three months. This facility has little if any program for them.''

In New York State, where new tough laws and longer sentences for violent and repeat offenders have led to a 120 percent increase in the state's prison population in less than a decade (there are now just over 30,000 inmates in the New York penal system), correction officials are scrounging for space.

Former Gov. Hugh Carey, conscious of the surge in inmates, proposed $500 million in new bonds to finance prison construction two years ago, only to have voters turn him down (a similar proposal was approved in neighboring New Jersey).

Since taking office, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo has embarked on a three-year plan to build 7,000 more cells to accommodate projected growth in the prison system and to alleviate current overcrowding. In March the Legislature authorized the Urban Development Corporation to issue $150 million in bonds for new prison construction.

Yet as difficult as it has been to get support for new prisons in New York, it has been ''more difficult to forge a consensus on what would appear to be the inevitable alternative - releasing some prisoners to make room for new ones,'' says David Rothenberg of New York's Fortune Society, a citizen watchdog group that monitors prison conditions.

Michigan, Connecticut, and Oklahoma have put limits on their prison populations - in effect saying that no one gets in until someone gets out. When a certain number is reached in Michigan, for instance, the system automatically releases those with the least time left to serve.

Shortly after the Ossining riot, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said: ''It's really a myth that there are a lot of people in state prison that don't belong there.'' Most inmates have been convicted of violent or drug-related crimes, and his office argues that keeping them in prison is a major reason why homicide and robbery declined in New York City last year.

In the next few weeks, the Cuomo administration will submit legislation calling for alternative sentences for certain types of crimes and for changes in parole laws. It will not include a Michigan-type release plan.

But for Lt. Mike McGinnis, in charge of officers at Ossining, the issues are much more simple and immediate.

''Security is still the top priority, and security comes from consistency,'' he says, recalling the soaking he took during the hostage crisis when inmates turned a fire hose on him. ''With the average stay for my line officers (individuals assigned duty inside a cellblock) being six weeks, we lose our consistency. The inmates don't know what to expect from us.''

Out of an officer staff of 710, no more than 300 can be considered permanent at Ossining. And of some 400 officers who draw duty directly inside the cellblocks, 70 to 80 percent have less than one year's experience.

''It is no secret that this is one of the worst assignments in the state system,'' said one correction officer here.

Officials say they hope to stem the high turnover rate and cite unique factors that have created the unstable situation.

Under the officers' union contract, once new guards have been placed in their first assignment, they can request a transfer based upon seniority to any prison where there is an opening. The opening of a new facility at Brentwood, Long Island, caused a shift in personnel throughout the 42-prison system in New York. Ossining proved to be the low institution on the officers' selection list.

''We replaced a new lieutenant every one and a half weeks for all of 1982,'' says Warden Wilson J. Walters. ''Sergeants turned over at about the same rate, and sometimes we had 60 to 100 new officers every two weeks.''

''I came here in July 1980 when the population was 1,400,'' said Mr. Walters, who is retiring at the end of May. ''By January 1982, A and B Blocks were full and we were running over 2,100 inmates. I have no control over intake, outtake, or how long they stay once they come here.''

Premium pay for officers holding more difficult duty is one option Commissioner Coughlin is considering. Starting pay for a New York state corrections officer after a six-week training period is $12,290. After the first year it jumps to $15,000 and then in two more it rises to $18,376.

One demand made by inmates during the crisis and agreed to by the special negotiating team was that no extralegal reprisals be taken against inmates.

''There have been no reprisals. An attitude of understanding between officers and inmates came about from the riot,'' says prisoner Clifford Bell, a resident of Cellblock B during and after the rebellion. ''Since we both get locked up, we both have to live under some semblance of decency. Hot tempers represent the exception here now.''

But one group of inmates explained that the 26 officers assigned and 616 inmates confined to the five-tier slab of steel cages in Cellblock B are just thankful for the cooler-than-usual spring temperatures. ''We know that long before the reforms reach us, the heat from the summer sun will,'' said one inmate.

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